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Classical Music and Cinema: Pachelbel and “Ordinary People”

Pachelbel’s Canon. Where would weddings, high school graduations or any public celebration of passage be without it? You’ve heard it if you’ve ever played in an orchestra. Heck, you know PC if you’ve ever seen an orchestra. It’s formal name is “Canon in D major”, its composer a German named Johann Pachelbel. But if you say “The song you always hear at weddings” most people will know what you mean.

That ubiquity is why I love Robert Redford’s choice of the piece to bookend his directorial debut, 1980s Ordinary People. It’s the first time I know of that the piece of classical music most yoked to celebrations has been the soundtrack to a divorce.

Redford adapted Ordinary People the movie from Ordinary People, the young adult novel by Judith Guest. Both concern the autumn and winter’s passing of a Chicago family in the wake of an older sons death and a younger son’s suicide attempt. The project was an orchard of beginnings–Guest had won the Janet Heidinger Kafka prize (for best first novel by an American woman) four years earlier, and Redford and star Timothy Hutton both received Oscars for their maiden trip in their respective screen roles.

Ordinary People itself is about one very sad march to an ending. The Jarrett family are in the early days of their own extinction as the sadness of the past reveals how ill-equipped they are to stand together in its aftermath. The clip I’ve included comes from the film’s final scenes where the mother, Beth Jerrett, leaves the family and is not coming back. Pachelbel’s Canon comes in at about 9:05 and is unmistakable.

The same cannot be said for its composer. Johann Pachelbel enjoyed considerable fame in his lifetime (the Baroque music era of the mid 17th century) both as a musician and a teacher (several of his students were the siblings of J.S. Bach). But his music wasn’t paid much attention by scholars until the early 1900s. Canon in D, the only canon Pachelbel ever composed, was thought to have been originally recorded for the wedding of Bach’s older brother. A 1970 recording by French composer Jean-Francois Pailliard brought it roaring back to popularity in the modern era.

It’s hard to believe that music as widely known as Pachelbel’s Canon needed a second chance at life. It’s fairly unlikely also that Robert Redford knew this about the piece when he chose it. Nonetheless the choice manages to both retell the piece’s own story and add another dimension to Ordinary People’s.

Redford selected the Pachelbel’s Canon as the film’s lead-in and coda. Like much great film music it doubles back on itself, commenting on the movie while still supporting its narrative. You might grin in recognition or nod when the piece underscores the film’s opening, a reverent yet melancholy montage of the falling leaves of late fall. But when it reappears at the end, your face might twist.

Why is a canon associated so permanently with celebration and marriage concluding a story of a family’s collapse? Perhaps the music hints at the ending also being about the rebirth of another family, between father and son, based on forgiveness more than regret. Perhaps Conrad and Calvin Jarrett have a another shot at a different kind of life. The canon that plays them off into that possibility certainly did.

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